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Let the torch relay shed its light on the plight of Tibet

April 1, 2008


The Age, Melbourne
March 31, 2008

China's calls for a protest-free torch relay should be ignored by all
nations that uphold democracy and human rights.

DESPITE the mythological dramatics that accompany the lighting of the
flame every four years at Olympia, nothing similar happened in the
ancient Olympics. The lighting of the flame and the torch relay to the
stadium for the opening ceremony are creations of the modern games.
Specifically, they were introduced at the Berlin Olympics in 1936, an
inauspicious reference point for those who like to maintain that sport
is just sport, and politics should never be allowed to taint it. What
are still remembered as "Hitler's Games" were notable for two things:
the desire of the host nation's government to use the Olympics for
propaganda; and the ease with which the realities of competitive sport
turned that desire against itself. Posturing about the superiority of
the Aryan race could only seem ridiculous while the world watched
newreels of victories by black athletes.

Seventy years later, another totalitarian government also seems intent
on using the Olympic Games as a celebration of the system over which
it presides — while objecting to any close scrutiny of that system,
which the world's greatest sporting gathering will make possible. The
Chinese Government, it seems, has learnt nothing from Hitler's

Earlier this month, protests erupted in Tibet on the anniversary of
the failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959, and, as has happened
during previous protests, the response by Chinese authorities was
swift and brutal. The Tibetan government-in-exile estimates that at
least 140 people have been killed, but the true figure may be much
higher. The protests are driven not only by continuing resentment of
China's occupation of Tibet, but by fears of cultural annihilation
because of the influx of Han Chinese into the Himalayan nation.
Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who is willing to
accept Chinese sovereignty in Tibet in return for genuine autonomy and
the preservation of the country's Buddhist traditions, describes
China's policy as cultural genocide. It is a judgement disputed only
by the Beijing Government, which continues to present itself as having
liberated the Tibetan people from superstition and monkish oppression.
This argument is akin to Indonesian claims that the occupation of East
Timor was benevolent because of the improvements in education and
health care that came with it. But the reality in Tibet, as in East
Timor and so many other nations that have been subject to foreign
domination, is that oppressed peoples do not regard better schools and
hospitals as fair exchange for the loss of national freedom and
assaults on their way of life.

The world sees that reality, and the Chinese Government should not be
surprised that it does. Nor should it be surprised that the Olympic
torch relay that is now under way appears certain to attract
demonstrations of support for Tibet. The only surprise is that
authorities in Beijing seem to think that the world's democracies have
an obligation to suppress peaceful protests so that no one can rain on
their global parade. When protesters appeared at the lighting of the
flame in Olympia, China's foreign minister described their actions as
"shameful" and "unpopular". Unpopular? With whom? Certainly not with
the people of Tibet, or of the many other nations, including
Australia, in which sympathy for the plight of Tibet is strong. The
protests may be unpopular in China, where media reporting on Tibet is
strictly controlled; but that is a comment on a system that relies on
control of the flow of information to shore up support for the ruling

Since the latest round of protests and suppression began in Tibet,
there have been calls in many countries either for a complete boycott
of the Games or for a boycott of some part of them that would normally
attract the largest global television audiences, such as the opening
ceremony. Most governments, including Australia's, have rejected these
calls, citing the boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980, which was
extremely divisive and failed in its objective of ending the Soviet
invasion of Afghanistan. Australia's Foreign Minister Stephen Smith
has said, however, that the Olympics should be used "as part of
China's engagement with the international community", and that the
Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, will raise the issue in his forthcoming
visit to Beijing.

It must be hoped that this is not cant for refusing to confront China
on its appalling human-rights record, especially in Tibet. Boycotting
the Olympics would be futile, but events connected with the Games such
as the torch relay should not be conducted in a manner that pretends
everything is as rosy as the Chinese Government would like the rest of
the world to believe. Peaceful protests declare that the world has
seen through the pretence, and no democracy should bend to Beijing's
requests that the relay proceed "securely", i.e. without protests of
any kind. The world owes the people of Tibet at least that much — and
the people of China, too.
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